KGB: The Inside Story

By Christoper Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky

HarperCollins. 776 pp. $29.95

THIS VOLUME has already made headlines in America with its accusation that FDR adviser Harry Hopkins was an "unconscious" Soviet agent and that Treasury official Harry Dexter White was a fully conscious one. In Britain it has also been in the news with its claim to have solved the mystery of the so-called "Fifth Man," the hidden associate of Soviet spies Burgess, Philby, Maclean and Blunt. A cabal of journalists and disgruntled MI5 agents identified him as the former head of MI5, Sir Roger Hollis. Here he is shown fairly definitively to have been a lesser figure, one John Cairncross. These are only some of the plums in this rich pudding of a book, which will certainly open a new era for the growth industry of "intelligence studies."

The provenance of the work is encouraging. Christopher Andrew is a Cambridge don who has done more than anyone in the United Kingdom to make the study of intelligence operations a respectable branch of historical studies. This is in fact a sequel to his excellent history of the British Secret Service; perhaps he will make it a trilogy with a volume on the CIA. His collaborator, Oleg Gordievsky, was a KGB officer who defected to the West in 1985, but who had been working as a double agent for the British intelligence service for the previous 10 years. Gordievsky brought with him not only his own inside knowledge of KGB operations and personalities, stretching over 25 years, but also an acquaintance with the background of the organization based on a systematic reading of its files for the writing of an "in house" history. Between them Andrew and Gordievsky have produced as comprehensive a history of the KGB and its predecessors as we are likely to get, until glasnost leads to an opening of the files, not only in the East but in the West.

Comprehensive: but reliable? Andrew's name is a guarantee of academic integrity, and the book is carefully documented. But all too many of the sources turn out to be books based on interviews or hearsay, or memoirs which cannot help but be self-serving. Admittedly this is at present all we can get, and some of authorities -- Philip Knightley, for example, or Andrew Boyle -- have worn very well over the years. But it remains very thin ice for the serious scholar. As for Gordievsky, we would really like to know more. Footnotes to his information simply say "Gordievsky." But when Gordievsky defected, according to his own account, he was wearing only a tracksuit. How did he get his files out? Or are we dependent simply on his own highly trained memory? And how dispassionate and reliable can we expect any turned agent to be? Wherever he has been able to authenticate a statement from a reliable source Andrew has done so, but there are many occasions where it has not been possible. As a result this book must be treated not as an authoritative survey but as an interim report, and one that the authors will probably want continually to revise. THESE WEAKNESSES show in the treatment of the two men who have already made headlines: Harry Hopkins and Harry Dexter White. Hopkins was claimed as an "unconscious agent" by the NKVD (the KBG's predecessor) on no better grounds than that he had occasional meeting with their agent I.A. Akhmerov, admired Stalin and was desperately anxious to support the Soviet war effort. Much the same could have been said about Winston Churchill. Like any other organization the NKVD was anxious to claim any credit going, and what could have done more to enhance Akhmerov's reputation that his claim to have landed quite so big a fish? As for Harry Dexter White, here described as "the most important of several NKVD agents in the U.S. Treasury," the case against him still rests on contemporary allegations that are not here confirmed from either Soviet or U.S. official sources. The CIA may have more information that it is not yet ready to reveal, but until they do it is surely unwise to be quite so categorical.

The picture that Andrew and Gordievsky paint of the KGB is thus likely to be more valuable for its outline than for its details, and though one may have doubts about their identification of individual trees, their delineation of the forest is entirely convincing. The evolution of the KGB as an organization from the original Cheka established by Dzerzhinsky to safeguard the Revolution, itself taking over the methods and many of the instruments of its czarist predecessors; its ability to find ideological sympathizers throughout the world, and its skill at exploiting them; its capacity to penetrate its adversaries' less experienced organizations; its development into a sprawling bureaucracy riddled with personal factions -- all this is superbly described. And if the authors sometimes linger too long over irrelevant absurdities like the career of the British agent Sidney Reilly, who will blame them?

The main characteristic of the KGB and its predecessors revealed here, however, is the compulsive paranoia that fueled all its activities. It saw the Soviet Union constantly under threat -- as much when it was a victorious superpower as in the early, precarious months of its birth. All intelligence agencies have a paranoid tendency against which they should be constantly on their guard. In the case of the KGB this was intensified both by Russian cultural tradition and by the manic suspicions of Joseph Stalin that led to the massacre of millions of Soviet citizens. It was a trait that vitiated all the achievements of their intelligence services. The excellent and accurate information provided by their agents was ignored if it did not fit into the predetermined pattern of KGB expectations. As a result, in spite of the expenditure of millions of rubles and the exercise of sometimes diabolical ingenuity, the KGB remained in essentials as ignorant about the outside world in the 1970s as it had been 50 years earlier. Little wonder that when Reagan came to power in the United States they took his high-flown rhetoric seriously, and began to prepare for a nuclear surprise attack.

There is unlikely to be anything in this book that will come as a surprise to Western intelligence services, and there is probably much that they know not to be true. But they should read it with one question in mind: In this description of professional paranoia and the distorted images to which it gave rise, do they find any reflection of themselves?

Sir Michael Howard is Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University. He is the author of many books, including "The Franco-Prussian War" and "The Causes of Wars."